01 September 2021
When a text on papyrus is fragmentary, there is always hope that further portions of it may turn up at some point, perhaps in a collection on the other side of the world. In one of our previous blog posts, we digitally re-united two halves of a papyrus from the collections of the British Library and Columbia University, New York. Today we will share another story of virtual re-unification and collaboration among institutions focusing on the story of Appian, an Alexandrian ambassador who stood up to the Roman Emperor against injustices.
Papyrus 2435 is a fragmentary roll bearing a register of contracts from the late 2nd century on the front-side. The roll was later reused and on the back another text was written, known as the ‘Acts of Appian’ (Acta Appiani), assigned to the first half of the 3rd century. This is the latest piece that has come down to us from a collection of texts on papyrus named the ‘Acts of the Alexandrians’ (Acta Alexandrinorum), written by unknown authors over the first three centuries AD. The surviving texts follow the format of the official minutes of legal proceedings (acta), from which their title derives.
The ‘Acta’ promote Alexandrian patriotism and anti-Roman feelings, recounting hearings of some prominent Greek citizens of Alexandria sent as envoys to the court of the emperors in Rome. These hearings usually concern conflicts between Greek and Jewish communities in Alexandria. As the emperors tend to appear hostile to the Greek delegates, the hearings become proper trials, and often end with the execution of the envoys, who are killed as martyrs of the Alexandrian cause. It is difficult to discern what is historical and what is literary fiction in these texts, but the authors of the Acta may have relied on official documents of the hearings.
The ‘Acts of Appian’ recount the hearing of an Alexandrian ambassador called Appian, trialled before the Emperor Commodus (176-192), although the emperor is never named in the surviving portion. Appian is sentenced to death twice, but is surprisingly recalled on both occasions. He accuses the emperor of making illegal profit from the trade of Egyptian grain, hoarding it with the aim of selling it at high prices. After being called back from execution, Appian continues to defy the emperor, accusing him of avarice, dishonesty and lack of education, contrasting him to his father Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher, who was fit to rule as an emperor. After this attack, Appian is condemned to death once again, though he is granted the right to die in his robes, as a symbol of his noble status. On his way to execution, he invites the citizens of Rome to watch the show of his death. Following the complaints of the crowds in Rome, the emperor recalls him again. At this point, however, when Appian starts another argument, the papyrus suddenly breaks off leaving the narrative fragmentary.
In 1933 a fragment entered the papyrus collection of Yale University, and was identified as belonging to the roll containing the ‘Acts of Appian’ now in the British Library. The fragment preserves a few letters from the first column of the British Library papyrus as well as bits of the two preceding columns, providing some missing portions from the earlier part of the account. At this point of the narrative, after having accused the emperor, Appian is being led away to execution for the first time, when he sees a dead body on the way and talks to a certain Heliodorus, who is unable to help but encourages him to face his death: dying for his fatherland will bring him glory.
Thanks to a collaboration between curatorial teams at the British Library and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, high-resolution images of the two portions have been made available and the fragments have now been joined again, virtually.
We are also happy to announce that the British Library papyrus is now displayed in the new Universal Viewer, compatible with the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF).
The account of Appian’s trial is still incomplete, and we do not know whether the Alexandrian was eventually sentenced to death, but we hope that new fragments may come to light in the future to reveal the conclusion of the story.
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26 July 2021
How many of us have ever needed a letter of recommendation to apply for university or to seek employment, to rent a flat or to consult a special manuscript in a reading room? Well, in using these letters we are following a practice that was already in use thousands of years ago.
Letters of recommendation are well attested in the Classical world. They feature as one of the twenty-one types of letters recorded in a letter-writing manual mistakenly attributed in the manuscript tradition to the 4th-century BC orator and statesman Demetrius of Phalerum.
A passage from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad testifies to a rather treacherous use of a letter of ‘recommendation’, quite the opposite of what is expected. King Proetus writes a letter for Bellerophon asking his father-in-law, the king of Lycia, to kill Bellerophon, who is bearing the folded tablet containing the message.
St Paul also mentions recommendation letters, commenting: ‘Do we begin again to commend ourselves? Or need we, as some others, letters of recommendation to you, or from you? You are our epistle written in our hearts, which is known and read by all men’ (2 Corinthians 3:1-2).
The Greek papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt offer several examples of recommendations, dating from the 3rd century BC onwards. The letters usually display a consistent format: the author greets the recipient and recommends the bearer of the message, asking the addressee to offer whatever help the recommended person may need. Sometimes letters request even more, asking for loans, job offers, and assistance with taxes or legal issues. The person recommended would usually be introduced as someone close to the writer, often a friend or relative, whose preferential treatment would be considered as a personal favour to the writer.
Among the British Library holdings is a letter of recommendation forming half of a papyrus sheet (Papyrus 2553).
Many details about this letter would have been unclear had the right-hand half of the papyrus not been identified in a fragment (P. Col. VIII 211) now held in the papyrus collection of Columbia University's Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in New York. The two papyrus halves join perfectly, as Antonia Sarri recognised in an article published in 2014 in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies.
The full letter, dated 16 February 6, concerns a dispute between Isidorus, a farmer from the village of Psophthis, in the Memphite district, and Tryphon, governor (strategus) of a different district, the Arsinoite.
Isidorus appears to have been detained and compelled by the governor’s agents to swear that he would cultivate a plot of land located on the estate of the empress Livia, wife of Augustus, in the village of Philadelphia, in the Arsinoite district. However, because Isidorus was formally registered in another district, he shouldn’t have been obliged to perform this work. Several influential people took Isidorus’s side in this affair, one of whom is Proclus, author of another letter from the archive.
In this letter, Proclus instructs Asclepiades, a local official, to investigate the matter and cooperate with Isidorus, a member of his household. Moreover, Asclepiades is reminded not to forget in the future that Isidorus is recommended by Proclus. From the tone of the letter, it can be surmised that Proclus’s social standing was rather high.
In the postscript, Proclus adds ‘… do everything for Isidorus, for I am concerned about him.’
Despite being thousands of miles apart, the two fragments can now be joined virtually thanks to the advanced technologies and the combined efforts of the curatorial teams at the British Library and Columbia University. The British Library fragment has now been displayed in the new IIIF Univeral Viewer, and the Columbia portion will made available on their current platform for IIIF, Columbia's Digital Library Collections (DLC), in the coming months. We’ll be sharing further examples of fragments that can be reunited in the coming weeks, so look out for further updates.
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13 February 2021
As it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, we have collected some ‘charming’ love spells preserved in the Greek magical papyri of the British Library. Such spells were believed to rouse love and passion, but more worryingly they were also intended to bind and attract the loved one to the user. Some spells even went so far as to cause suffering to the victim, which was to end after the lovers were united. Most of the spells presented below are preserved in Papyrus 121, a magical handbook presumably from 4th-century Egypt, originally a roll over two metres long, containing spells for various purposes, from healing and binding to obtaining protection and success.
A ‘fetching’ love spell
Love spells often have titles that define their nature in more detail. One of the most frequent types are the love spells ‘that lead’, named agōgē and agōgimon in Ancient Greek (from the verb agō, ‘to lead’). This type of spell had the aim of bringing the victim to the person performing the magic. One of these spells instructs the user to take a seashell, write holy names with the blood of a black donkey, and recite a formula to attract the victim. The user should select the time to perform the ritual very carefully, as the spell had immediate effect.
Securing eternal love
Magical words (voces magicae) recur constantly in the magical papyri. These are unintelligible sequences of words or syllables thought to have magical power. This spell, believed to obtain the eternal love of a woman on the spot by invoking the god Iabo, displays some magical words at the end.
An ‘excellent love charm’
Magical signs, known as charaktēres, were another powerful tool. These symbols often had the shape of asterisks or lines ending in small circles. The following love spell makes use of such signs. The spell is described as an ‘excellent love charm’, literally ‘potion’ (philtron). It explains that a tin lamella should be engraved with some magical signs and names, rolled up with some magical material (perhaps a lock of hair or a piece of clothing) and thrown into the sea. The practitioner should also remember to use a copper nail from a wrecked ship for writing!
Invoking deities for help is another common feature of love spells. A special invocation to Selene, the Moon, is contained in the following spell. Addressing Selene as the ‘mistress of the entire world’, the user was instructed to make offerings to her by moulding a mixture of clay, sulphur, and blood of a dappled goat into a figurine of the goddess, and by consecrating a shrine made of olive wood, which should never face the sun. As a result, Selene would send a holy angel, who would drag the victim by their feet and hair to the user. The victims would be fearful and sleepless because of their love for the individual performing the magic. Success is guaranteed, as the ‘power of the spell is strong’, according to the papyrus.
Over a cup…
Among the objects featuring in magical rituals are also those of daily use. The following spell is ‘a good drinking cup’ spell: over a cup, the user ought to repeat magical words seven times. These were believed to be ‘holy names of Cypris’, that is, Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Users of the spell hoped that the loved ones’ heart could be reached, and their love would be returned.
Spells may have been accompanied by drawings to serve as a model for performing the ritual. For example, a picture is mentioned in the following spell, although the papyrus itself does not preserve it:
‘Take a shell from the sea and draw on it with myrrh ink the figure of Typhon given below, and in a circle write his names, and throw it into the heating of a bath. But when you throw it, keep reciting these words engraved in a circle and attract to me her, NN, whom NN bore, on this very day from this very hour on, with her soul and heart aflame, quickly, quickly; immediately, immediately’.
This ‘fetching’ spell (agōgē) was believed to work with ‘unmanageable’ targets. The names of seven ‘great gods’ should be written with myrrh on seven wicks of a lamp, which ought not to be red. The lamp was lit and had wormwood seeds on top. A formula should then be recited. The victim would be sleepless until they reached the practitioner’s house: this would happen by the time the seventh wick flickered.
After reading these ancient love spells, we definitely prefer our Valentine's Day celebrations to be ‘charmless’.
The development of erotic magic continued in the following centuries: you can discover more in our previous blogpost on medieval love spells.
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Translations are from The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, ed. by Hans D. Betz (London-Chicago 1986).
13 January 2021
Long-term readers of our blog may know that we periodically publish lists of our digitised manuscripts, the last of which was published in July 2020. With the arrival of the New Year and the beginning of a new lockdown in the UK, we are releasing an update to our lists of manuscript hyperlinks. We hope this makes it easier for readers and researchers to explore our amazing digitised treasures online.
There are now over 4,500 Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts website. Here is a full list of all the items currently available, as of January 2021:
During this period of terrible uncertainty, the Library's Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern team has been busy as ever, working to make more manuscripts available for our readers online. Over the last 6 months alone, we have published over 850 items, from medieval and early modern codices and rolls to Greek papyri and ostraca. All the images featured in this blogpost are from collection items that we have digitised since June 2020. Here is a list of our most recent additions:
Over the last months, some 620 Greek papyri have been published online, spanning from the 3rd century BC to the early 8th century. These include pieces of Greek literature, such as the famous ‘Harris Homer Codex’, an 1800-year-old manuscript preserving portions of Homer’s Iliad, as well as hundreds of fascinating documents, such as letters of parents to their children, managers and employees, magical charms and shopping lists. You can view this video for a short introduction to cataloguing the Greek papyri.
Thanks to a collaboration with the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, more than 250 inscribed pottery sherds (ostraca) from the 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD are now available online for the first time. A short overview is presented in our previous blogpost on ostraca.
In September, we reported on the progress of a major digitisation programme, Heritage Made Digital: Tudor and Stuart manuscripts. This collaborative project, involving teams across the British Library, intends to publish approximately 600 Tudor and Stuart manuscripts online. The selection encompasses original letters by members of the Elizabethan court; literary manuscripts of the works of important Elizabeth and Jacobean poets such as John Donne and Sir Philip Sidney; notes by the alchemist and astronomer John Dee; and collections of state papers that highlight numerous aspects of the political and social history of this period, particularly the relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. As of the start of this year, over a quarter of these manuscripts have now been published.
Since this summer, two particularly significant manuscripts have been digitised, both of which can be explored in their entirety on the British Library’s new Universal Viewer. The Sherborne Missal, acquired by the British Library in 1998, has been called the ‘unrivalled masterpiece of English book production in the fifteenth century' (Kathleen Scott), with each of its hundreds of pages replete with astonishing illumination. Readers can learn more about the Sherborne Missal in our previous blogpost. The volume was also recently featured on BBC Radio 4’s Moving Pictures programme.
Meanwhile in November, the British Library acquired and digitised the most important surviving manuscript of the works of Lewis of Caerleon, a highly influential mathematician, theologian and astronomer, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London towards the end of the reign of Richard III (r. 1483-1485). The volume contains the most complete collection of his astronomical and mathematical works, including texts that are unattested elsewhere, as well as its original medieval binding and an unparalleled series of astronomical tables and diagrams. Learn more in our earlier blogpost on the Lewis of Caerleon manuscript.
Many images of our manuscripts are also available to view and download from our Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts which is searchable by keywords, dates, scribes and languages.
Enormous thanks to all the members of staff across the Library whose hard work has made these achievements possible despite the difficult circumstances this year.
We wish all our readers a Happy New Year and hope you enjoy exploring our digitised collections!
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04 December 2020
Steam engines are heat-operated devices which use the force of steam pressure to generate rotational force. The importance of steam-generated energy for human history can hardly be overestimated. Without steam engines and the machines, trains and ships they powered, industrialisation, globalisation and economic growth would all have taken radically different shape.
The invention of the steam engine is usually ascribed to British engineers of the 17th and 18th centuries. James Watt (d. 1819) is best known for inventing an especially efficient type of the engine in 1786, which was applied first to trains and then in the early 19th century to ships. It is much less known that the engine was invented in the 1st century AD by Greek engineers of Alexandria, more than 1,500 years before Watt. The British Library holds a remarkable collection of Greek manuscripts that describe and illustrate these early steam engines in great detail. More information can be found in Ian Ruffell's article, Greek mechanical texts.
The most important authority in mechanics from Antiquity was Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the 1st century AD. Relying on the work of earlier scientists, Hero compiled a number of treatises on mechanics, physics and war machinery, which were often richly illustrated.
The title-page of a copy of Hero’s Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
One of Hero's works, entitled Pneumatics after the Greek word (pneuma) for air and gases, contains descriptions of a number of machines and automata that made use of gases and steam in various ways. One of these was a construction that fulfilled exactly how a steam engine should convert steam pressure to rotational force. Fortunately, the manuscripts contain illustrations of the machine Heron described, so we have a reliable image of what this Greek scientist may have had in mind.
Hero’s steam engine from his Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Harley MS 5589, f. 12v (detail)
Hero’s device was very simple. It consisted of a cauldron under which a fire was ignited. The cauldron contained water and was covered by a lid with two bent tubes (marked ξ and μ on the illustration) connecting to a ball (λ), which had two nozzles (θ and κ) pointing in opposite directions. Once heated underneath, the steam went through the pipes into the hollow ball and exited through the two nozzles in opposite directions, resulting in a rotational movement of the ball in order to achieve a steady speed. Hero’s description was so accurate that it has been possible today to recreate a fully operational version.
A modern replica of Hero’s steam engine (credit Wikimedia Commons)
Surprisingly, the ancient scientists do not seem to have recognised the revolutionary potential of their invention. The machine, along with a number of similar constructions preserved in these manuscripts, seems to have served very unpractical purposes. Many of these automata were designed only to entertain and surprise the guests at banquets and feasts, having figures of animals or mythical figures that moved around and had water flowing through them.
Hero’s installation for animating birds in fountains, from a collection of mechanical texts (Venice, 16th century): Burney MS 108, f. 42v (detail)
Hero used some of his automata for cultic and religious purposes. He constructed a special system to open temple doors without any human interaction. In one construction he even designed trumpets to be sounded at the opening of the gates. There were sacrificial pyres that lit up at the sound of the trumpet to praise the power of the gods. Rather than machines to help the production of goods and sustain economic growth, ancient engineers explicitly considered their inventions only as devices which, as the Roman architect Vitruvius wrote in the first century AD, 'show the mighty and wonderful laws of heavens and Nature'.
The design of an animated model of a sanctuary from a copy of Hero's Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 20r (detail)
Hidden in this context, Hero’s designs and illustrations were forgotten and barely copied for centuries until the Renaissance. It was only with the arrival of Greek intellectuals to Florence that manuscripts of Hero’s works, with their rich illustrative tradition, reached Europe, where humanists were amazed by their scientific content.
Marginal annotations in Latin to one of Hero’s designs, comparing it to other ancient scientific sources, from a copy of the Pneumatics (Italy, 16th century): Burney MS 81, f. 14r (detail)
Around this time there arose a great demand for copies of Hero’s works. 15th- and 16th-century illustrated manuscripts of his treatises abound and were soon dispersed across Europe. Hero’s texts were translated into Latin and Italian and printed several times. His designs, originally intended for entertainment and worship, had now become practical guides for further experiments and new discoveries. In the hands of the engineers of the 17th and 18th century, they became the blueprints for a more elaborate and effective steam engine that could be used in factories, trains and ships.
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21 September 2020
Camels are an iconic part of the Egyptian landscape. Called the ships of the desert for their endurance and ability to cope with the heat and lack of water, they are still used for transportation and as a tourist attraction in the shadows of the pyramids.
A man riding a camel in a medieval bestiary (England, possibly Rochester, 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 38v (detail)
But has this always been the case? Despite their archaeologically documented presence in North Africa for thousands of years, camels are hardly ever named in Egyptian documents of the Pharaonic period. They are first mentioned as animals used to transport goods and people in much later Greek documents.
One of the first sources to mention how camels were used is a papyrus in the British Library's collection, dating from around 2,280 years ago. This fragmentary piece comes from a Greek account-book, recording the costs of a private businessman who was renting out his camels. Although the papyrus is damaged, it shows that this man may have had at least 60 camels in his possession, and that he regularly rented them to local farmers, whose names are recorded in the document. Two of them, Onnophris and Eudemos, may have been regular customers as their names were recorded on consecutive days, hiring 5, 6 or as many as 10–12 camels at a time.
Fragments from the account-book of a camel agent (Egypt, Philadelphia, meris of Herakleides, 263–229BC): Papyrus 2692 (detail)
Unfortunately, the text does not record what these people used the camels for, but it is interesting to note that these early documents tend to mention the existence of camel agents renting out the animals, rather than camels owned by individuals. Could this be a sign that they were too expensive to own and cheaper to rent?
The camel in a medieval bestiary (England (Salisbury?), 2nd quarter of the 13th century): Harley MS 4751, f. 24r (detail)
Whatever the truth, this situation seems to have changed significantly within a couple of centuries. From the first and second centuries AD — about 1,800–1,900 years ago — there are far more papyri mentioning camels. Moreover, there is a shift in the way they were kept and used.
Apart from agents having more camels for rent, we find individuals keeping one or two of them for their own use. In a report to the local police from AD 175, the priests of a temple complained that out of their four camels, a nice white female had been stolen, and they asked the authorities to help them get it back.
Fragment of a petition to the local authorities reporting the theft of a white female camel (Pelusion, Egypt, c. AD 175): Papyrus 363
In a letter from about 20 years later, we learn that the prefect of a province ordered two camels for his private use, which were then delivered to him.
A letter from Tithioeis to Irenion mentioning the delivery of some camels for the prefect (Egypt, 3rd century AD): Papyrus 479
Besides these more institutional users, we find an increasing number of contracts attesting that other individuals had started to buy camels. It appears from these documents that camels were around 8 times more expensive than donkeys or mules. Female camels were especially valuable and were often sold with their foals for very high prices. For example, a contract from AD 177 records that a white female camel and two foals were sold for 900 drachmas, while at the same time one could buy a donkey for about 120–150 drachmas.
The beginning of a contract for the sale of a female camel and two foals for at least 900 drachmas (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, October AD 177/178/179): Papyrus 1100
Camels were relatively expensive. This must explain why some documents attest that people often purchased only a part of a camel. A contract from 1,850 years ago records that a woman with her three daughters bought one third of two camels from her own son for 400 drachmas. The document shows not only that the whole camel would have been very expensive (about 600 drachmas) but also how people shared camels between them.
Contract of a sale of a third share in two female camels for a sum of 400 drachmas (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 11 October AD 166): Papyrus 333
It was not only the purchase price of the animal that made it so expensive. Once you owned a camel, you had to register it with the local authorities and pay tax for it, which was higher than the amount charged for other animals. This may explain why in AD 163 Harpagathes was so quick to report to the council that his two camels, registered the previous year, had been requisitioned by the governor to serve in his caravan, so Harpagathes should not pay taxes for them.
Declaration of camels (Soknopaiou Nesos (Dimeh), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt. 29 January, AD 163): Papyrus 328
Apart from taxes, camels incurred other customs duties. Once they entered a city or a specific area, they had to pay a toll at the gates, which was higher than that issued to donkeys. As the surviving receipts attest, camels received a special permit on these occasions with a seal attached to the document.
A receipt acknowledging the payment of customs dues by Abous for exporting vetch on a camel, bearing a seal (Philopator alias Theogenous, meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 2nd century AD): Papyrus 386C
The ancient documents preserved among the Greek papyri at the British Library may look dull at first sight, but they record precious information. They provide a fascinating picture about the increasing use of camels in Egypt over a period of some four to five centuries, as well as giving us an insight into the everyday life of the people who owned or rented them.
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15 September 2020
Identifying people correctly has always been a challenge. Even in ancient times, there were different ways to ensure that a person acting in a legal case, such as a sale, lease, adoption or inheritance, was who they claimed to be.
The most obvious identification is to record the individual's name, but this was not as straightforward as one may think. To avoid confusion of people with the same names, people in ancient Greece had their personal name appended with that of their father. On this 2500-year-old pottery sherd, which an Athenian citizen used to vote for Pericles to be exiled from the city, he identified the right Pericles by putting down his name accompanied by Xanthippos, the name of his father. This practice of recording the person and their father’s name is reflected even in English personal names. If someone is called George Harrison, that would have been read as George who is Harry’s son.
Piece of a pottery dish inscribed with the name of Pericles ('Pericles son of Xanthippus') submitted in a vote to exile him from Athens (Athens, mid-5th century BC): Athens, Agora Museum P 16755 (image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
In Egypt, the system was the same but it was often the master whose name was listed after a personal name. This double identification was not always satisfactory. In a simple declaration of camels from AD 146, the declarant accurately identified himself with his own name and that of his father and grandfather: 'I Stotoetis, son of Stotoetis, grandson of Stotoetis'. All three generations had the same name.
Name of the declarant Sotoetis, son of Sototetis, son of Sotoetis, from the upper part of a papyrus sheet (Soknopaiou Nesos, Egypt, AD 146): Papyrus 390 (detail)
The situation was even more complicated if the different parties to the transaction had the same name. In a lease from AD 94, in which Hereius leased a large property to two tenants, these leasees were called Stotoetis of Apynchis and Stotoetis son of Stotoetis. In a sales contract from AD 166, we find women acting together with their families, whose names were all listed. To the probable horror of the clerk, all were called Stotoetis:
'Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus, and her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, acknowledge that they received 14 silver drachmas as earnest money for a property from Taoues daughter of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis, and her husband Pabous son of Satabous son of Harpagathes.'
The beginning of a sales contract with a list of the parties involved (Neilopolis (Tell el-Rusas), meris of Herakleides, Arsinoite nome, Egypt, AD 166): Papyrus 334 (detail)
Keeping order in such a jungle of names would be easier today. The parties might be asked to provide their passport or photo ID, for instance, each with a unique number allocated to it, making it simpler to identify everyone. In the absence of such an option, ancient clerks reverted to another solution: they gave an accurate description of what the parties actually looked like.
The notary recording the above sale in AD 146 AD described each of the women and their families at their first mention in the document. This is how we know that Thases daughter of Stotoetis son of Horus 'was about 50 years old' (her exact date of birth was probably not recorded) and that 'she had a scar above the left elbow'. Her son Stotoetis son of Stotoetis son of Stotoetis was about 30 and 'had a scar on the right side of his forehead'.
Large fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a contract of a land sale (Krokodilopolis, Egypt, 107 BC): Papyrus 657 (detail)
In another sales contract from more than 2100 years ago, the two sisters selling the property to a man are described even more accurately: 'Taous, daughter of Harpos, is about 48, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Her sister looked very similar: 'she is about 42, medium height, fair skinned, round faced, straight nosed with a scar on her forehead.' Reading these descriptions one can almost visualize the faces of these two ancient women. They may have resembled the face of a lady recorded on one of the portraits found with mummies in the Faiyum Oasis of Egypt.
An even earlier document from 242 BC preserves the will of a man described meticulously for identification: 'He was 65 years old, of middle height, square built, dim-sighted, with a scar on the left part of the temple and on the right side of the jaw and also below the cheek and above the upper lip.'
Fragment from a papyrus sheet preserving the testament of a man (Philadelphia, Egypt, 242 BC): Papyrus 2332 (detail)
This elderly man, in the latter stages of his life, but strong in stature, may have been not unlike this portrait from another coffin in the Faiyum.
Reading these ancient descriptive IDs, one may suppose they were made up on the spot by the clerks themselves. But this may not always have been the case. In another papyrus from more than 2280 years ago, we read about the appointment of new stone-cutters for a project. Before they started their new jobs, the workers were presented to a committee, in order to take down their descriptions.
Fragment from a papyrus sheet, containing a letter concerning stone-cutters (Arsinoite nome, Egypt, 260-249BC): Papyrus 514
The document does not say more about these descriptions and how they were recorded and preserved, but we assume that they could have been used in legal transactions. The accurate descriptions of the parties in various documents, recording distinctive marks and features of the individuals involved, may reflect some kind of archived identification of these people. Whatever the truth, these ancient IDs have preserved unique shots of everyday women, men and children, comparable to the famous Faiyum Portraits.
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14 July 2020
The Greek and Latin papyri, ostraca and tablets of the British Library provide incomparably rich sources for learning about ordinary people, whose lives and words remained otherwise unrecorded for many centuries. One of the most intriguing perspectives these sources reveal is on families and children. We have recently published an article surveying documents that illustrate aspects of the lives of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD, from their infancy and early school years to their marriage and first jobs.
An especially well-documented phase of the life of children is their schooling from primary to secondary or higher education. There is another aspect of school documents, however, which is just as important and fascinating as that of the children – the teachers.
Notes, methods and even names of teachers survive in surprisingly large numbers in our collection of papyri and writing tablets. These give us intriguing details about how the foundations of literacy and numeracy were laid down thousands of years ago.
The first stage was learning to read. The way to achieve this was simple but not very easy. Similar to modern-day school education, children were first taught to recognise syllables and read them one by one to form the words. The difference between current and ancient practice, however, was that in ancient schools the texts used for this purpose were not easy reads as nowadays, but samples taken from classical authors.
Written with black ink on a whitened board, this 1800-year-old wooden tablet contains 5 lines from Book 3 of Homer’s Iliad copied in the neat hand of a teacher. Compared to the economic layout of texts in contemporary manuscripts where there were usually no spaces left between the words, on this tablet Homer’s words are neatly divided to make it easier to read. Moreover, the teacher placed strokes above the lines to mark the end of the syllables in each word. This practice, unknown in manuscripts designed for advanced readers, shows that the board was probably used to teach children to recognise and read in syllables.
The larger size of the wooden board – about the same as our A4 instead of the more standard A5 format of waxed school tablets – suggests that it was used for demonstration purposes. It may have served either as a blackboard in a classroom or a sample circulated in class. It is not hard to imagine the children holding and studying it, trying to decipher and read out the lines from Homer’s Iliad, ‘Sun, who be-hold-est all things and hear-est all’ (Iliad iii, 276).
Another, slightly different, reading exercise survives on a late 3rd-century papyrus roll that contains the text of Psalms 12-15. The layout of the text on the papyrus is the same as it would be in a standard manuscript with the text arranged in two columns with no space left between the words.
However, the large, circle-shaped marks above the lines, neatly arranged over each of the syllables of the words, suggest that the papyrus roll was also used in school education. It may have been designed for more advanced readers who no longer needed spaces between the words but who would still need some help to recognise syllables to ease reading of the rather complicated text of the Psalms.
Interestingly, the other side of the roll contains a classical text from the 4th-century BC rhetorician Isocrates, which has also been supplied with syllable marks. This shows how classical ‘pagan’ and Judaeo-Christian texts were used together in primary education of the late 3rd to early 4th century.
Another 2nd-century document shows how writing was taught in ancient schools. This little wax tablet, consisting of two parts to be folded up as a booklet, was a star item of the British Library’s recent exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark. Scratched in the upper part of the waxed surface are two lines of a maxim, ‘Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours’, in the beautifully tidy hand of a teacher. The pupil copied it out below, with mistakes and irregularities that are detailed in a separate article.
Wax tablets were perfect for use in schools. Writing in wax was easy to correct because you could erase the words by smoothing the wax with the other end of the stylus. Additionally, the child could place their stylus in the teacher’s deeply scratched lines and follow the letter shapes to learn how to imitate the script. The tablet shows very clearly how the individual hand of a teacher could influence the handwriting of generations in the future.
In addition to actual teaching aids used in class, there are unique survivals of teachers’ private notes. This set of eight little wooden tablets from about 1800 years ago preserves the handy notebook of a teacher who put his name, 'Epaphroditos', on the first tablet to mark his possession. The eight wooden boards would have been fastened together by cords passed through two holes in one of the longer sides of each of the tablets. Each side of the eight boards was neatly numbered on the left to facilitate orientation.
The texts are recorded in the rapid and practised cursive hand of a teacher, neatly organised into units for teaching probably at an elementary school. The left-hand side of page 8, for example, shows the letters of the alphabet with notes placed next to each clarifying whether the letter is a vowel (long or short or both), or a simple (such as K) or compound (such as X) consonant. On the right-hand side there is a list of short riddles in the form of questions and answers such as ‘what makes life sweet – happiness’. These may have been used as writing samples for wax-tablet homework-books like the one above.
The unique collections of papyri and tablets in the British Library show not only the labour of the children learning to read and write but also pay tribute to the generations of teachers, whose tireless educational work ensured that classical and Christian Greek and Latin texts came down to us.
You can find out more about the lives and education of children in Egypt between the 3rd century BC and 6th century AD in our article on the Greek webspace.
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